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Who am I and why am I here? What's the purpose of life? What's real, true, right, good? If God exists, what is He/She/It like, and how would I know? Might God have anything to do with me, and how would He tell me? Why do people suffer and die, and what happens next? These theological topics crisscross the landscape of a person's soul.
People often think theology is boring. But the title, not the topic, bores them. The word "theology" suffers from bad press. Most people, by their inquisitiveness, are natural theologians. A theologian must be curious, an asker of big questions-and by that definition, most of us could be called theologians.
In truth, almost everyone ponders those big questions and their possible answers. Such activity is central to a human being's inner world, whether formulated in lofty language, or expressed in common lingo, or never spoken out loud. So even though few of us ask, "Should I or should I not be a theologian?" we all live the result of being theologians.
Christian theology studies the big questions and issues, taking its name from the biggest-God. It studies God and everything related to God: the world; human beings, including ourselves and our problems; our lack of relationship with God and how to have one; truth and falsehood; right and wrong; the Bible; Jesus; the Holy Spirit; Satan and angels; the church; the future. Almost everything fits somewhere in the theological grid, even though we may not think of it as "theology."
Theology teaches us what Christianity believes and how to live. By knowing and applying theology, we make wise decisions and take godly actions. Theology explains the "whys" behind God's commands and prohibitions. Thus, our daily lives and our spiritual growth are connected to our learning and living theology. It's not surprising that Jesus included the mind in the greatest commandment about loving God (Matthew 22:37). To not apply our God-given minds to the study of theology is to disobey the Lord's command. On the other hand, to obey the Lord's command by applying our minds to His truth is to please God.
Without reasoned, coherent answers to our big questions, life makes no sense. Outside of theology, we cannot find relevance. All other pursuits result in dead ends. If our questions are left unanswered, nothing seems to fit in life, or even in our thoughts. Everything remains unanchored, floating in midair. Without theology, life leads to despair-in extreme cases, to suicide. So theology, rather than being irrelevant, is the foundation of all relevance.
In our day, theology is often denounced as irrelevant, unnecessary, or outdated. Polls reveal an alarming and growing opposition to theology. Even Christians rate theological knowledge last on the list of pastoral qualifications. For some people, theology is only rules and legalism; for others it's mere philosophy divorced from everyday life.
"Can't I just read the Bible, have faith, and love Jesus? Why study theology?" Such questions reveal a common misunderstanding about theology, even a bias against it. Reading the Bible, having faith, and loving Jesus all require thinking and understanding. Theology explains our reading of the Bible, builds our faith, and increases our love of Jesus. These tasks cannot be adequately done without thinking and theology.
"Theology" comes from two Greek words, which mean "God" and "word, discourse, thinking, or reflecting." Together, in simple terms, they mean thinking about and discussing God and related subjects such as the Bible, faith, Jesus, and other big questions about truth and life and reality. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle considered theology the greatest discipline because its main object of study, God, is the highest reality. Even into the Middle Ages, theology was known as "The Queen of the Sciences."
In past centuries, and even today, some people divorced theology from the Bible, considering it an independent field of study. But Christian theology cannot be separated from the Bible. It is essentially studying the Bible by topic, rather than in the order the text appears. Theology looks at the Bible's teaching on a subject in all the passages where that subject appears; exposition is the study of the Bible's passages in verse-by-verse order, regardless of the topics in those verses. The two processes go together.
Theology relates to two themes-truth and life. It helps us understand and organize God's truth in Scripture and advises how to live in light of that truth. Theology uncovers the universal biblical principles we can apply to our lives. Without it, Christianity is reduced to a folk religion-familiar and reassuring but unrelated to real life. Christians are then unprepared to face the media blitz of secularization and the influences of cultic falsehoods. Without understanding of the truth, our worship diminishes into tradition, our beliefs degenerate into legalism or heresy, our desire for spirituality may pursue nonChristian paths, and our lives become devoid of service to God and others.
In addition to theology's practical relevance, Jesus commanded us to love God with our minds (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). Yes, we glorify God by godly living, but godly living proceeds from godly thinking, including the study of theology. Lazy and irrational thinking does not glorify God. A real lover of God and disciple of Jesus develops and uses the mind.
You may not think of yourself as a theologian, and you may not practice theology in a formal setting like a seminary. But everyone who thinks is a theologian, for at times, we all ponder God and the big questions of truth, life, and reality.
The inevitable follow-up question to "Why study theology?" is "Which theology?" Throughout its history, the church has devised too many theologies to mention. In addition to the many classic options, new ones spring up continually. So we should clarify which theology we mean when we encourage people to study it.
First, we are talking about Christian, rather than nonChristian, theology. The world's other major religions organize their beliefs according to a certain structure, as Christians do. But their belief systems lie outside the scope of this book.
Second, our focus will be Protestant rather than Roman Catholic theology. This distinction does not suggest that we believe Roman Catholics have nothing to offer. It does reflect major differences between the two. The most fundamental disagreement is on the locus of authority. Protestants believe authority resides in Scripture alone. Roman Catholics find it in church tradition as expressed by church councils and the pope, in addition to the Bible. Most other doctrinal variations between these two major branches of Christianity stem from this issue.
Third, within Protestantism, for purposes of this book we'll express evangelical rather than liberal theology. Perhaps the most significant evangelical distinctive, especially in America, is belief in the historic doctrines of the faith found in Scripture. Liberal theology largely rejects them or redefines them in novel ways, often due to placing supreme confidence in human reason rather than divine revelation. Cut loose from the secure anchor of Scripture, liberalism changes with each cultural season.
But what about differences within Protestantism, or even within Evangelicalism? Various denominations emphasize some doctrines above others and more than other groups do. For instance, Baptists usually emphasize baptism, specifically by immersion, more than other doctrines. Many Presbyterians stress God's sovereignty more than other Christians do. Charismatics highlight the Holy Spirit and His role in our lives. Denominations originally arose in part out of these doctrinal emphases, and many of those distinctions continue today.
Evangelicals agree on the following major doctrines: the inspiration of Scripture; the triune God existing as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the deity of the Son and the Spirit as well as the personality of the Spirit; the created goodness but fallen sinfulness of mankind; salvation by grace alone received through faith alone because of Christ alone; the bodily resurrection and return of Christ. Differences among evangelicals include issues related to predestination, church government, spiritual gifts, and the end times.
Most evangelicals believe we can debate without dividing. The evangelical spirit leans toward flexible cooperation, a significant change from our fundamentalist forebears. One challenge within Evangelicalism is finding the right degree of flexibility. While escaping the harshness of narrow extremism in one direction, we must avoid giving away the doctrinal farm in the opposite direction. Most evangelicals agree with this concept, but may disagree over where the boundary is found.
The intent of this book is to summarize Christian theology from the evangelical Protestant view-my own perspective. As is true of everyone, I cannot claim perfect objectivity, but I will try to alert the reader to debated points as well as portray other views fairly and accurately.
Excerpted from 5 MINUTE Theologian by RICK CORNISH Copyright © 2004 by Richard W. Cornish. Excerpted by permission.
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